In Egypt's public squares, dueling definitions of democracy

Proponents of deposed President Morsi say the coup has deprived them of their vote. But the coup's backers say there is more to democracy than majority support.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
An Apache helicopter flies over Tahrir Square during a protest to support the army in Tahrir square in Cairo, Friday.

As military helicopters swept low over Tahrir Square today, eliciting cheers from the billowing crowds, protesters kissed posters of Egyptian Armed Forces chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and compared him to a pharaoh.

But just a few miles away at Rebaa al-Adawiya square in Nasr City, the Muslim Brotherhood’s alternative to Tahrir, the tone was very different. As collective cries of “Allahu Akbar” – God is great! – filled the air, some protesters went as far as to say that Gen. Sisi should be exiled or even killed to prevent a civil war in the wake of the military's decision to depose President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.

The dueling street protests represent a battle over how to define democratic legitimacy in the new Egypt. Some insist that the fundamental basis of democracy, or power by the people, is the street.

But others see such protests as having overthrown the ballot box along with Mr. Morsi, wiping out not only a heavy-handed leader but also the basis of a system that, when mature, is meant to counteract such excesses.

“Democracy all over the world has been built on all sorts of bases, none of which state that whoever wakes up early and floods the streets gets the power,” says Mohammed El Beltagy, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader at Rebaa. “We are obliged to stay in the street to disapprove and show that the 30th of June was not a real revolution.”

The June 30 protests brought millions of Egyptians to the street to protest Morsi’s excesses of power, his failure to engage other political factions in a meaningful way, and his inability to make headway on the considerable problems he inherited when he took office a year earlier with 51 percent of the vote.

When Morsi failed to respond to the massive discontent in the streets despite a 48-hour ultimatum from the military, Sisi – his defense minister – stepped in and declared Morsi deposed. The former president has been held incommunicado ever since, and state media reported today that he has been formally charged with spying.

On Wednesday, after a month of increasingly violent protests and clashes that have left at least 180 dead so far, Sisi called for mass protests today to give him a mandate to crack down on "terrorism" – a statement widely seen as referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

To be sure, Morsi may not have been a shining example of democratic leadership as he navigated the tense and fractious landscape of a country just emerging from decades of autocracy. His move last fall to put himself above judicial review in the name of “protecting the revolution” sparked particularly widespread condemnation.

“What do you think about a president who took the legislative power into his hands without right, who suspended the constitutional declaration upon which he was elected, a president who started appointing only those from his own party and started calling everyone a traitor?” asks Osama Amir, a protester in Tahrir who hails from a province some 270 miles away. “Even in Western countries you would not tolerate that.”

But some argue that the avenues for the opposition to push back had not been closed as he neared the end of his first year in office, and thus the democratic system could have reined in Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood without military intervention.

“I’m a firm believer that if there are problems with a democratically elected leader, you work within the system,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. He says the important question was, “Does the opposition have a chance to compete and work within the system to counterbalance Morsi and roll back his excesses? The answer to me was always very clear – yes.”

After the coup, Muslim Brotherhood supporters have become somewhat disillusioned by democracy, even as they insist that Morsi be reinstated as the legitimately elected leader of the country.

“They took our voting rights away and stepped on them,” says Rebaa protester Hala Hassan, stamping her foot on the worn road as the main thoroughfares became choked with protesters. 

And Morsi won’t be the last to suffer as a result, argued Amr Aboud, as he drove alongside a pro-Morsi march closer to downtown today. “No other president will be taken seriously, no other election will be taken for real,” he says.

Back in Tahrir, however, some of the original revolutionaries who kicked off the protests that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 say there’s more to democracy than elections.

“Democracy comes from the street and what the people want, it’s not only about ballots and boxes,” says Mahmoud Nasr, who has been protesting in Tahrir since the landmark demonstration on Jan. 25, 2011.

But as much as mass protests have figured in democracies around the world – think France – they can’t overrule the rule of law and be allowed to unseat a democratically elected president, says Dr. Hamid.

“They can coexist with democracy,” he says. “But where mass protests are intended to trigger military intervention – that’s where I think all demonstrations should draw a red line.”

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